Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gift Of Life: A Sunday Rumination

     First, a hopefully relevant joke:

Three travelers – an American, a Canadian, and a Scotsman – were driving along a U.S. highway, the American at the wheel, when disaster came upon them in the form of a drunken sot at the wheel of a huge SUV. The SUV clipped the American’s car, sending it careening off the road to tumble, pitch over the bank of a dried-out river, and crash a hundred feet to the rocky riverbed below. As is often the case with such accidents, the drunken sot continued on unharmed.

     The cop who first came upon the smoking wreck was immediately certain that no one could possibly have survived such a crash...and was dumbfounded when a body groaned, straightened, and emerged from the driver’s seat to stand before him, apparently completely unharmed.

     “Good Lord!” the cop exclaimed. “How lucky you are to have come out of that without a scratch!”

     The American shook his head and said, “Sorry, Officer. There was no luck involved. It was all about timing.”

     Puzzled, the cop said “What do you mean?”

     “Well, the American said, “all three of us died, but when we awoke at the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter informed us that the section of the Heavenly City with our apartments in it was under renovation, so he couldn’t admit us on the spot. He offered us an alternative, though: rather than just standing at the entrance and waiting it out, he’d return us to life for $500 apiece.”

     The cop said, “Well, what did you do?”

     “Oh, I paid him, of course.” The American brushed a few stubborn flakes of charred steel from the sleeves of his jacket.

     “I guess that should be obvious. But...” the cop faltered, “where are your passengers?”

     “Well,” said the American, “when last I saw them, the Scotsman was still haggling over the price, and the Canadian was arguing that his government should pay it.”

     We all know that heaven doesn’t feature any Renovations In Progress: Proceed With Caution signs, and that Saint Peter doesn’t take cash. (For someone with his duties, credit cards are a lot more say nothing of PayPal.) Nevertheless, that the American immediately ante’d up indicates that he, at least, set the value of a second shot at life above a measly five hundred bucks. (I know, I know: five hundred bucks can seem anything but measly if you simply don’t have it. All the same.) Yet reflect on this: no one is ever asked to pay for his life. Life comes to each of us gratis, and without let or hindrance. But if a soul awaiting incarnation were to be asked, before the actual event, whether a term in the flesh would be worth $500 to him, what do you think he would say?

     I can’t imagine any other answer than “Quite a lot more than that, Bubba.”

     This thing of infinite value – a gift upon which everything else under the veil of time must depend – comes to us absolutely free. What are the implications of such a gift?

     Hold that thought.

     I have no doubt that each of us has a little list of chores he’d prefer to avoid. Any excuse will do for putting them off, or (if possible) sloughing them completely. For me, one of those chores is the weekly cleaning of the Fortress of Crankitude’s “cat room:” an otherwise disused room, twenty-seven feet by eight, where the cats’ litter boxes, food and water settings, and “cat trees” are kept. That room gets pretty foul over the course of the week, as our cats have the unholy habit of occasionally pooping and barfing onto the floor.

     (Two huge, enclosed litter boxes, the largest available. Fresh litter each and every Sunday. Human servants to cater to their every need, and five large, elaborate “cat trees” for furniture and recreation, and they reciprocate by doing that. Where, I ask you, is there gratitude in this world? But I digress.)

     First, I must change the litter in the litter boxes. Then I must sweep the floor as clean as possible. Third, I must “steam:” I use an Oreck steam unit to bring the floor as close to sterility as possible. Fourth and last, I wet a Dobie pad, get onto my knees, and deal with the remaining crusty spots by hand. (Yes, even with the steam unit, there are always some. Felis Domesticus has cracked the secrets of indestructibility.)

     It’s no fun. It doesn’t take more than thirty minutes from start to finish, but it’s irritating, quite tiring, and in hot weather it can cause me to overheat. When I’m not feeling well, which is getting to be the case ever more frequently, I look for ameliorations. Does the floor really need to be steamed this week? Can’t I let those little crusty spots go, just for a day or two? Why do I have cats, anyway?

     Yesterday, I asked my wife if she would do the steaming so that I could deal with the remaining crusties as she went. Without going into detail, let’s just say she excused herself from involvement in the chore.

     I was immediately flooded with resentment. It poisoned what would otherwise have been a perfectly good Saturday evening. A trace of it lingered overnight.

     Why? They’re my cats, not hers. The responsibility for them was mine before I married her. They would still be mine were she to leave me. That didn’t matter. I’d asked a favor and had been rebuffed. It left me sulky and snappish for many hours.

     For those hours I’d forgotten to be grateful.

“The Japanese have five ways to say 'thank you' — and every one translates as resentment, in various degrees.” – supposed “older and wiser head” Jubal Harshaw, in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land

     If the above statement from one of the Twentieth Century’s most famous novels is correct, the Japanese are a linguistically hobbled people. As John C. Wright has reminded us, gratitude is the secret to happiness. The reason is not far to seek.

     Gratitude is the acknowledgement of one’s blessings. Therefore, one must be aware of one’s blessings as a prerequisite: more aware of and focused on them than on one’s trials or troubles. This is not to say that if we want to be happy we should regard our troubles as of no moment. Rather, it’s a reminder that no matter how great one’s trials or troubles might be, it’s the gift of life that makes it possible for us to bear and combat them.

     The gift of life is infinitely greater than any possible bedevilment – especially so in the Christian formulation, wherein hewing to a very simple set of rules will earn one the gift of eternal life in perfect, untroubled bliss. To acknowledge that must perforce precipitate one into a state of gratitude and more: exuberant, joyous celebration of oneself and all that one has borne and will bear.

     Yet how easy it is to surrender to resentment: of others, for the burdens they impose upon us; of time, for the depredations it heaps upon us; of chance, for the misadventures it inflicts on us that we could avoid had the dice fallen just a little differently.

     Resentment easily gives way to self-pity...sometimes, to despair.

     Those states of mind are made possible only by failing to remain aware of one’s gifts.

     The Christian liturgical calendar embeds two “seasons of preparation:” Advent and Lent. We’re approaching the end of Lent as I write this. For a long time, there was this notion that one’s preparations prior to Lent should involve a great deal of self-denial, even self-abnegation. (Ever heard the ugly word mortification? If not, consider yourself spared. It constitutes one of the Church’s most grievous errors, from which it has yet to back fully away.) The pseudo-rationale behind that nonsense was that as Lent is supposed to prepare us for the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, we should strive to inflict (bearable) suffering upon ourselves, that we might “bring ourselves closer” to Him.

     It’s balderdash. Worse, really: it’s stuff and nonsense. The entire point of Christ’s Passion was our redemption from sin: to avert the punishment for our misdeeds from our shoulders. The appropriate return of service for that gift isn’t for us to inflict suffering on ourselves, however minor; it’s intense, all-consuming gratitude. Joy and thankfulness and praise that resounds to the dome of heaven itself!

     “Mortification” – the deliberate, self-inflicted approach to death -- constitutes a blatant rejection of the gift of life. Not in any of His Three Persons did God even hint that Man should seek out suffering or self-abnegation. There is no merit or virtue in it. It’s the reverse of gratitude, and it should be shunned.

     Self-denial is only virtuous for its own sake when it involves keeping the commandments: for example, to “deny yourself” the satisfaction of killing the driver who just cut you off, or to “deny yourself” by refraining from committing adultery with the hot young wife next door, whether she’s been making “bedroom eyes” at you or not. In truth, these are not real self-denials; they’re recognitions of transcendent truths of human nature and the laws in which it encloses us.

     To indulge the sense of gratitude is infinitely more meritorious. As a “spinoff,” it makes you happy.

     I can’t leave this subject without a few words on the custom of “giving something up for Lent.” This is not inherently wrong. Indeed, it might be good for us...especially those of us who could afford to lose a few pounds. But it should be approached with the proper intentions and in the proper spirit.

     The intention should be not merely to omit some customary pleasure or indulgence, but to replace it pro tempore with extra prayer or some similar increase of spiritual commitment. The spirit should not be of self-denial or self-abnegation, but of an increased consciousness of God’s gifts to oneself that has prompted a greater devotion of one’s time and attention to thanks and praise.

     View the custom in this light and it becomes wholly constructive. View it as merely a penitential diminution and it’s no good at all.

     Life is the greatest of all gifts. Gratitude for life is a recognition of that fact.

     Indeed, Man is, as far as we know, God’s greatest creation. You think a star is something awesome? Stars are merely gravitational accretions of gas! What do they do? They sit around and belch heartburn all day! Galaxies? Mostly empty space and dust. Give me enough empty space and dust – and a little time to work, of course – and I could make one. Size is far less impressive than complexity...and Man is the most complex thing that exists under the veil of time.

     The most complex human artifacts haven’t got a patch on Man’s body. The greatest achievements of the mind pale in comparison to the wonder of the mind itself. Have a snippet from On Broken Wings:

     A large, raggedly circular clearing took her by surprise. At the center stood a great oak, an enormous tree more than a hundred feet tall and at least five feet through the trunk. The trees that formed the perimeter of the clearing were pines and firs of unusual height: a fitting honor guard for the creature at the center of the circle.
     Christine went to the great oak and touched it gingerly. It had to be several centuries old, perhaps a thousand years or more. Louis had told her that trees of such caliber were rare, because they grew so slowly. To achieve such dimensions and yet endure against the elements and the pull of the Earth required that their annual increments of height and girth be tiny, such that their growth could only be perceived over a span of decades.
     I bet it's not as old as Malcolm.
     She chuckled to herself. Too long a baseline cheapened the glories of the world. No man but Malcolm could dim the august majesty of this being. Malcolm himself would agree. Yet she knew what else he would say.
     It has no eyes, or ears, or heart or brain. It has endured the years, but it has not witnessed them, let alone affected them. You say it is beautiful, and awe-inspiring, but the beauty is in your appreciation, and the awe is in your heart. It is Man's heart and mind that create beauty and awe. Nothing else in all the world can do it. Nowhere is there anything as great as Man.

     May God bless and keep you all!


daniel_day said...

"Nowhere is there anything as great as Man."
A sentiment that the Left has successfully taught far too many to deny. Speaking from outside the Christian faith, I agree that this is one of the great articles of your faith.

doubletrouble said...

This is one of the *very* few times where the addition of prayer vs. the denial of one's self has been addressed.
Since my return to the Church, I've been a proponent of more daily Mass attendance, additionional daily prayers, (I like the Angelus), & a general disposition of praise & thanks, for Lent.
Giving up chocolate seems trite, & unbecoming the season.
Well done.

Anonymous said...

I envy your optimism, Francis. For whatever reason, in reading your entry here, I can only think about how the viewpoint that life is the greatest gift can ONLY be elucidated by those who are alive. This makes me suspicious of it. Conversely, I don't hear anyone who is not alive complaining about it. You could say my viewpoint is morbid, but frankly, I don't really think about it until it comes up. Having said all this, I'd have to say that OPTIMISM is the greatest gift of all. (Optimism, or hope, or a certain, sweet ignorance) Without it, every other gift is moot. And you call YOURself a curmudgeon...

Francis W. Porretto said...

It's a prerequisite for optimism that you be alive. Q.E.D.

pdwalker said...

It's funny how obvious it becomes how wonderful the miracle of life is as you get older.

As an aside, have you heard the expression "Dogs are proof of Gods love, cats are proof that we're not as important as we think we are"